Published on: January 3, 2014
One of the best things about taking time off over the holidays was the opportunity to go to a bunch of movies … and now, having the opportunity to write about what I saw.The Wolf of Wall Street
was probably the highest profile movie I saw, and the one about which I have the most mixed emotions. Wolf
is the new Martin Scorsese movie detailing the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort, who fueled his Wall Street career with securities fraud and ethical corruption of an epic nature. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Belfort,a real-life figure, with a kind of demonic glee - it is all about personal gratification, accumulating money and power, and demonstrating an extraordinary arrogance about his business acumen and carnal needs. There is no sense that just because you can do something does not mean you should
Mt biggest problem with Wolf
is not so much that it glorifies the sex and drugs, something that it has been accused of my some commentators. Rather, it is that Scorsese's work reminds me of a modern artist flinging paint against a canvas … I admire the energy and commitment, but I find the result less than compelling. The performances - by DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Rob Reiner and especially Matthew McConaughey - are strong. But the more I think about the three-hour-long Wolf of Wall Street
, the more I think that the parts are less than the whole.Lone Survivor
, on the other hand, actually is a movie in which the filmmakers turn something essentially small - a disastrous US Navy Seals mission in Afghanistan that resulted in the death of three Seals and the bare survival of just one. (No spoiler here - the title and the first three minutes of the movie give all this away.) The mission went bad because the Seals accidentally ran into some goat herders and, rather than kill them, let them go - even though it almost certainly meant they would alert the Taliban to their presence. In other words, the Seals make the hard, moral decision … and suffer for it. (The argument essentially would be to murder the unarmed herders in cold blood would hurt the US effort in Afghanistan over the long term by undermining any moral superiority.)Lone Survivor
is tightly written, directed and acted - there is not an ounce of fat on the movie, which also, it must be said, is brutal and often hard to watch. But the world created by director Peter Berg is compelling, and one has a sense that he is being driven by the facts, not a desire to heighten reality.
Mark Wahlberg, who co-produced the film and plays Marcus Luttrell, the surviving Seal of the title who co-wrote a book of the same name, anchors the movie admirably without making it a star turn. And strong performances by Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster and Eric Bana only add to the movie's verisimilitude.Saving Mr. Banks
is the somewhat sanitized true story of what happened when PL Travers, author of the Mary Poppins novels, came to Hollywood to be wooed by Walt Disney, who desperately wanted to turn the iconic British nanny into a movie. Travers was resistant, to say the least, feeling (with some justification) Disneyfication of her characters, who she viewed (with much justification) as family; the always wonderful Emma Thompson plays Travers with a prickly exterior with roots in some real-life tragedy, so it never seems anything but real. And Tom Hanks gives his version of Walt Disney a folksiness that belies his iron will … Disney didn't get to be Disney by taking "no" for an answer.
There are some lovely supporting performances by Paul Giamatti, Colin Farrell, Jason Schwartzman and Bradley Whitford, and I found Saving Mr. Banks
to be a generally pleasant experience loaded with business lessons - it is about the importance of determination, how critical it is to understand exactly what core values are, and, ultimately, how to manage for ultimate effectiveness. It is important to remember that while Disney may not have gotten Travers' "Mary Poppins" absolutely right, Disney's Mary Poppins
is an undeniable classic.
My favorite movie of the break, however, is Philomena
, a fabulous British film - and, like all the movies I saw in theaters, based on a real-life story - about Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who, in her late sixties, sets out to find the son that she was forced to give up by nuns when she was in her teens (she was a single mother). Philomena, played superbly by Judi Dench with a slight dottiness that evolves into real determination and wisdom, is aided by a disgraced and cynical British journalist, Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan (who also co-wrote the screenplay, based on a book by Sixsmith).Philomena
goes back and forth between the search for the son and the events that led to him being taken away from his mother, who was serving time - there is no other way to put it - in a convent where the nuns treated her and other single mothers as pariahs. And what struck me is the degree to which the film shows that ethical behavior, moral superiority, compassion and forgiveness have little to do with being part of an organization that may preach such things but does not practice them. There is much more that I could tell you about the movie, but I'm going to stop there - one of the pleasures for me was how much I did not know about the story going in, and how the film unfolds.Philomena
is a lovely piece of filmmaking - beautifully directed by Stephen Frears, acted with great care, subtlety and humor by Dench and Coogan - and it deserves to be seen by a wide audience. See it.
The last movie I saw was a film that actually never made it to theaters - Hachi: A Dog's Tale
, a 2009 G-rated movie that went direct-to-video because the studio had very little confidence in its ability to make any money.
The studio was wrong. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom and acted by Richard Gere and Joan Allen, Hachi
is a heart-tugger and absolutely wonderful. I'm not going to tell you anything more about it than you should rent it and watch it. If you don't cry, you need sensitivity training.
Finally … I also read a book over the holidays. (In paper-and-ink format, just FYI). "The Gods Of Guilt" is the latest in the Lincoln Lawyer series by Michael Connelly, and it is yet another page turner by one of the best mystery writers working today. "The Gods of Guilt" finds defense attorney Mickey Haller defending a pimp, which makes it hard for him to attain the personal and professional redemption he craves.
One of the things about Connelly's books - whether about Haller or LA detective Harry Bosch - is that one has the sense that the author has been in all the rooms and heard all the conversations that he's writing about. And that's a compelling virtue, and reason enough to read everything that Connelly writes. Great stuff.
A final, personal note.
My mom would have been 83 years old tomorrow. Unfortunately, she passed away after a long battle with cancer in 1998. Way too early. While she was barely five feet tall, she was enormously tough … and I miss her a lot.
Just a suggestion, if I may. If your mom is still around, call her. Take her out for a cup of coffee, or lunch, or a drink. Give her a hug. You'll be glad you did. I wish I could.
That's it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.